Philosophical Origins and Intellectual Heroes of the New Left
At the height of the Italian Renaissance, the artist Raphael composed a series of frescoes for a Pope's private library. In one of these he designed his ideal vision of the intellectual life, and called it The School of Athens. To convey the grandeur, the power, and the magnificent scope of the human mind, he chose the philosophical academy, a college in which scholars undertake their inexhaustible quest for knowledge.
The boundlessness of that quest, as well as the rigorous discipline it requires of those who embrace it, is symbolized by the setting Raphael constructs for his figures. One views the scene inside the academy through the firs! of a series of arches, which recede into an increasingly luminous background. Beyond the room on which the view looks, an apparently endless vaulted corridor opens into other rooms surmounted by high, open domes through which clouds and sky appear The formal symmetry of the architectural design suggests conscious arrangement, order deliberately imposed upon the seemingly limitless space, and the richly complex ornamentation, in the house of intellect.
Here, mankind's first scholars pursue their work. A large number of bearded, long-haired men, their clothes in disarray, sit, stand and walk around wide steps which connect the long corridor to the court of a large hall. In the foreground, at the bottom of the steps, a man holding a pencil sits beside his writing table, puzzling over his manuscript. An older figure sits near him, to the left, reading from a huge tome, while students gather to listen, one straining to see the book. Above them, at the top of the steps, others converse in animated discussion, pointing and gesturing as though in disputation tn debate. One young man, far to their right, leans against the wall beyond the corridor's opening, balancing himself on one foot while bending to write on the book held against his raised knee. As another man watches over his shoulder, reading silently, several figures below them confer in front of the steps. Two stand holding large balls, instruments in some demonstration or experiment. Others surround a teacher who bends over to point to a tablet on the floor, kneeling and leaning near him to see the tablet. Alone, slightly to their left, an old man immersed in thought reclines against the steps.
In the center of this scene, emerging from the corridor toward the steps and seemingly toward the world beyond the academy, two stately figures, one with his hand extended upward, the other with his arm extended outward to the world, converse as they walk. The students around them separate to open a path for their first and greatest teachers: Plato and Aristotle.
Raphael convenes the meaning of his work in the activity, the movement, the controlled energy of his figures: these intellectuals are passionately, intensely involved in their profession. One perceives, and feels, simultaneously: these are men of ideas—and—these are men who take ideas seriously. Whatever their errors, it is they to whom we owe the existence of philosophy. It is they to whom we owe the recognition that the essence of man, his "soul", is his reasoning mind.
Contrast with Raphael's vision of the academy, the picture raised by the idea, "university," in most men's minds today. That picture, too, includes a large number of bearded, long-haired, barefoot men, their clothes in disarray. But these figures do not sit—they sprawl, or stand—they slouch, or walk—they march. If they appear in a hall, it is to occupy the floor; if they appear engaged in debate, it is to shout down an opponent. One does not visualize them in small groups, nor does one picture some among them alone, writing or reading or thinking. One imagines them, rather, as a crowd—a disorderly mass joining together in a loud and angry chorus of shouts and jeers. Any resemblance between Raphael's ideal, active scholars and contemporary student "activists" is entirely superficial. The latter are "men of action—not of ideas." The "Act Now, Analyze Later." It is not Plato or Aristotle that one would choose to represent in a portrayal of the academy today, it is a rampaging New Leftist.
Sunday Supplement Magazines which illustrate the nature of today's university with his picture persist in reminding us that he, too, is an intellectual—that, in fact, he is among the most intelligent and knowledgeable of those on the university campus. His actual intellectual (?) stale is more precisely described, I think, by Carl Oglesby, himself an SDS'er:
"Perhaps he has no choice and he is pure fatality; perhaps there is no fatality and he is pure will. His self-estimate may be sophisticated and in error or primitive and correct. His position may be invincible, absurd, both, or neither. It does not matter. He is on the scene."
Whatever else one may say about this statement, it is clearly a total abdication from the responsibility of intellect. Translated, it means simply I do not know what I am doing or why I am doing it—and furthermore, I could not care less.
The most appropriate characterization of the New Leftist mentality is not to be found in Sunday Supplement Magazines, which call it "intellectual," but (of all places) in The New Republic, as the title of an admiring essay by Michael Harrington: Mr. Harrington calls them "The Mystical Militants." A mystic is a man who believes that intellect (reason) cannot understand reality, and that he possesses a special means of knowledge ("instincts," "intuitions" or emotions) which make him privy to the truth. If we are to believe Carl Oglesby, it is feelings, not thoughts, which guide the New Leftist's action; feelings, not reason, with which he makes judgements, feelings, not ideas, that he takes seriously And if one feels like being "on the scene," then, in the absence of intellect, his only alternative is mindless activism.
It is unlikely that a considerable segment of the younger generation could have degenerated into this state on their own. They didn't. Ironically, one of the principle figures in Raphael's painting bears much of the responsibility. The philosopher Plato gave birth to a long line of philosophers who carried his intellectual message through the centuries: that feelings ("intuition"), not reason, provide man's means of knowledge and guide to action. That message was carried to the teachers of today's students, and has now been transmitted to the students themselves.
Yet even the most mindless activist—especially a young person who still feels, somewhere, dimly, that ideas are important and that his feelings must have some intellectual sanction—cannot live from riot to riot without finding some reason for traveling from one to the next. As Ayn Rand explains
"…a human being cannot live his life moment by moment; a human consciousness preserves a certain continuity and demands a certain degree of integration, whether a man seeks it or not. A human being needs a frame of reference, a comprehensive view of existence, no matter how rudimentary, and, since his consciousness is volitional, a sense of being right, a moral justification of his actions, which means: a philosophical code of values."2
If one feels frustrated, confused, angry, and generally afraid of the world, if one feels like tearing it apart, one can look for ideas which will help him understand and change his feelings—or for ideas which will justify them. Most New Leftists do not seriously read Plato. To whom, then, do they turn for their intellectual sanction and moral guidance? From where does the young student learn that throwing a college dean down a flight of stairs is an appropriate mode of behavior for "a member of the young intelligentsia"?
According to the members of that amorphous mass which calls itself the New Left, this question is unanswerable: "No all inclusive term adequately characterizes the range ot ideologies which influence the campus rebels. The link which binds the various tendencies within the student movement is a firm belief in the value and necessity of active dissent."3 This is accurate. Since its inception in the late fifties and early sixties, the "Movement" has been deliberately defined by its leaders as "anti-ideological." Part of the reason for this was a practical matter: "Ideology divides, action unites" as the familiar phrase has it (and as events at the recent SDS convention attest). Part of it was a reaction to the failures ot the only "ideology" they knew well, Marxism, in predicting the consequences of capitalism and communism. And part of it was a distrust of any system of ideas which attempted to explain the world—a suspicion of the adequacy of intellect to comprehend reality in a consistent set of philosophical principles—a distrust and suspicion planted and nurtured by their teachers from kindergarten to college. It would be grossly erroneous to suppose that any particular New Leftist, let alone the whole "Movement," slavishly and undeserved accepts the entire body of a particular intellectual's work.
Instead, he picks and chooses among the ideas of many thinkers ("ideas" and "thinkers" are used broadly here), accepting those which feel right to him.
"The Power Elite and the books and magazines of the English New Left made big impressions on me; and so did Communitas. But when I heard Goodman speak, I was turned off. I read the Correspondent and I guess it made me a peacenik. I was moved by Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China. I read a little Marx, but only through courses…; and a little Fromm, Camus, Sartre, after graduating. I spent most of my time at college in meetings. I guess some of the liberal faculty members influenced us. I had an emotional reaction to Grapes of Wrath and Man's Fate…
"I think my radicalizing process came more through personal contact, action, and from my liberal family, than through books or great men. In high school I was deeply moved by Russian novels. Sartre and Camus had some impact on me…
"In college I read very little Marx—for courses only—and didn't understand the economics. The alienation parts seemed more relevant and exciting.
"I read C. Wright Mill's White Collar, Power Elite, and Causes of World War III…I was very impressed but I questioned Mill's role in writing White Collar. Was he a victim of the same thing he was describing?
"…I read I.F. Stone's Weekly religeously [sic), and usually the New Republic, Nation, Studies on the Left, Liberation, Progressive, and Dissent."4
Where most Now Leftists got their ideas, clearly, is from other New (and Old) Leftists. The actual theoreticians of the "Movement" are writers of what are termed "radical critiques of the existing society." There is Mario Savio, of Berkeley fame, whose angry expostulations against the University Establishment have proved so inspirational; Carl Oglesby, who analyzes the mind of the radical; Carl Davidson, who provides blueprints for "radical action", Tom Hayden, who lashes society for all of its crimes: Eldridge Cleaver, who fulminates against racism everywhere (but at home). There are professors like Paul Goodman (Growing Up Absurd, Compulsory Miseducation, The Community of Scholars, Communitas), who reproaches the educational establishment for its exploitation of students, and proposes "radical alternatives" (one favorite phrase "creative disorder"). Another is historian Staughton Lynd, who provides assurances that we have a rich American heritage of socialist revolutionary ideals,5 and once advocated the "non violent retirement" of the Johnson Administration. More important than people are newspapers and journals: the British New Left Review, the University of Wisconsin's Studies on the Left; SDS's New Left Notes, David Dellinger's Liberation, Paul Krassner's Realist, the whole established "under ground press'—even Ramparts and the Berkeley Barb when they are publishing; the left-liberal Dissent and New Republic, I.F. Stone's Weekly and the Guardian.
The "Movement" was born and nursed, in fact, in journals, among graduate students and social critics who rejected hard-line Marxism. Its father was sociologist D. Wright Mills. Mills (often credited with originating the term, "New Left") was an independent Marxist, read more seriously by early New Leftists than Marx himself. He spoke of "power elites" rather than of classes, wrote of "the problems of economic overdevelopment," conspicuous production and planned obsolescence; discussed "life-styles" with statistical charts. He attacked "liberal values" and argued devastatingly against capitalism—"devastatingly," because Mills understood the arguments of capitalism's defenders, and expertly dissected their inconsistencies. Confronted with the problem that most members of "the historic agency of social change," the working class, believed themselves happy and free, Mills explained:
"This whole issue of freedom may be called the problem of the cheerful robot. We know that men can be turned by coercion into robots. We did not know before our own times that they could cheerfully and willingly turn themselves into robots."6
He went on to explain in greater detail why men must be "forced to be free," and suggested, in a 1960 essay "On the New Left,"that the young intelligentsia would have to do the forcing.
If the father of the New Left was C. Wright Mills, its mother was the Civil Rights Movement. This was the earliest outlet for activism; many liberal children entered the "radical" world of the New Left through this door. And on the way, they became well read in the literature of "racism" One of the most influential writers on this subject was Franz Fanon, the Algerian psychoanalyst and revolutionary. His books (The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks are well known) provide a Marxist-Freudian analysis of "the colonial mentality" as well as the rhetoric of "Black consciousness." From Fanon New Leftists learned to charge that capitalism is inextricably linked to racism, in addition to imperialism and war, and to speak of racial minorities in the United States as "exploited colonies."
More recent additions to the "Movement" read less Mills and Fanon and more Mao and Che, who have been hoisted to intellectual status. The spectacle of college educated minds treasuring "The Thoughts of Mao" or Che Guevara's wisdom in Guerrilla Warfare may be preposterous and appalling, but New Leftists justify it by explaining that these men's ideas grew directly out of their action. The advantages of holding up tactical theorists and ideological dogmatists as "intellectuals" are obvious enough. Among them is that if Che is an intellectual, then anybody can be an intellectual, with as little mental effort.
Action theorists are subjects ot division in the "Movement," though all are widely admired for their personal example. Lenin, Trotsky and Bakunin are read for their "refinements" on Marxist revolutionary theory, primarily by the more seriously revolutionary elements of the New Left. The oracular pronouncements of Mao Tse-tung are considered eminently quotable; Black Panthers especially love "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" which is true, though one need not conclude that the reasonable thing to do is to grab it. In oracular pronouncements live a multitude of implicit assumptions, which one would do well to discover and question. Unfortunately, many New Leftists assume that their heroes must be infallible, and must necessarily be acting wisely on their wisdom. Castro, himself a young doctor of laws, is dear to the New Left as a model of the young intellectual who becomes a revolutionary to fight the American Establishment for The People. Che is likewise idolized for his guerrilla assaults, and his "martyrdom" has increased the popularity of his diaries as well as of his tactical manifesto (dull reading, and of little use to students who can find no peasants in the countryside) One of his young lieutenants, (Jules) Regis Debray (imprisoned in Bolivia), is especially popular with French students, though Revolution in the Revolution? is gaining increasing readership in the United States. Ho Chi Minh and his "Vietnam experience" became of more immediate interest than Mao and the Cuban revolutionaries with the continuation of the Viet Nam War, though he is less romantic than the Cubans. Such are the intellectual remains of the philosophy of the New Left.7
If the "intellectuals" discussed so far do not seem exalted enough to compare with Raphael's philosophers, I will remind you that they find their way onto college reading lists beside Plato (Aristotle has suffered a worse—or perhaps better—fate, he is usually omitted altogether). But I do not wish to suggest that the New Left has no more philosophical ancestry. Their reading tastes run to the popularizers of a more distinguished intellectual line.
It is Marx, of course, who provided the theory of man, society and history which has come to characterize the political "left" in all its variations. What distinguishes the New Left's Marx from the Old Left's Marx is basically that the New Left does not accept Marxism as the total and only solution to the understanding and improving of the universe. The New Left arose at a time when Marxism was largely discredited, both by the apparent failure of his predictions about capitalism and the slave state which Russia had undeniably become. Early New Leftists were Neo-Marxists who reinterpreted the theory in modern sociological terms and applied it to contemporary issues. It was clear that Russia had become a terrorist, totalitarian state; they had to show that Russian Marxism was distorted, corrupted, misunderstood. It was clear that the "conditions of the working class" had improved—in fact, that modern society had no "classes" in the Marxist sense: they had to show that the oppressors and oppressed still existed, but in a different form. The New Left's Marxism is in no way essentially new. They have cast new actors into the historical drama (the villain has grown to the Corporate-Military-Industrial University Establishment, versus Oppressed Minorities, Underdeveloped Countries, Alienated Students), but the play has not been rewritten. They share Marx's notion that one's relationship to a machine fundamentally determines one's consciousness—only the machines have changed. They declare with him that the abolition of private property would create a new kind ot human being—provided that all traces of competition were washed from people's minds. Their social ideal is communism, or socialism, alias "participatory democracy." What was supposedly "new" about the "new left" was that their form of communism would not require totalitarian control (i.e., the state would wither away immediately; their most recent actions and proclamations rob them of their novelty.
The attraction to Marx today is not, however, primarily to his social and economic theory. The New Left's interest is in his idea of "alienation" and his "humanism." "Alienation" was the Hegelian term Marx used to describe the effect of work on a laborer under capitalism: according to Marx, the laborer did not work for himself in fulfillment of a psychological need; he worked for someone else because he had to work to stay alive. This made him feel "manipulated" by inhuman forces beyond his control. When students today complain that they feel "manipulated" by the "system," they name their feeling "alienation". We are the country's alienated—alienated by America's values, alienated by America's mass culture, alienated by America's image of the Good Society."8 In Neo-Marxist terminology, "alienation" is the result of mass, bureaucratic, technological society, in which the individual is only a cog in a vast corporate-industrial machine.
In view of the incalculable human suffering experience in communist countries during the last fifty years, it may strike one as peculiar that young people should consider Marx a "humanist," that is, one who is fundamentally concerned with the value of human life. The explanation is simple. Marx asserted that under capitalism, the value of a human being was determined in the market place and measured in dollars and cents—that he was treated as a salable object; and that under communism, all human lives were valued equally and immeasurable—that human beings were treated as"conscious subjects." Marx asserted this, and the New Left (like almost everyone else) has taken him at his word.
None of this is new, but it is a shift in emphasis; and Marx's early writings are "more interesting" to read than this later more specific theoretical tracts. Nevertheless, the majority of young New Leftists obtain their Marxism from local pamphleteers and naturalistic novels. (Because the harder-line Progressive Labor Party is gaining more and more strength in the New Left, one should expect increasingly to read and hear old-Marxist rhetoric. PL, unlike SDS and other New Left groups, has always stressed political education in Marxism among its members. Thus we observe the alienated humanists at the recent SDS convention lashing each other with charges of "revisionism," a deviation from true dogma, and expelling each other from the Movement. The paint job done by the Neo-Marxists on the old theory is wearing thin.)
Among the apparent obstacles to Marxism in the twentieth century appeared the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud. Enormously influential in American culture generally, Freud's ideas (until recently) dominated college psychology departments and the minds of most who had been in contact with them. While Marx claimed that men were products of their historical-sociological environment, Freud claimed that they were products of inherited instincts. For a whole generation of disillusioned ex-Marxists fleeing from the thirties (many of whom now teach in Universities), Freud offered a perfect explanation for their blasted hopes: however ideal the Marxist utopia for which they yearned, it was impossible because unrealistic. Man, Freud announced is essentially at war with himself and with other men: that is the price of survival. (The modern version of: Man cannot create Eden on earth because he is burdened with original sin.) If Marxism was to be saved, intellectually, then Marx had to be rescued from Freud.
The technique employed by Neo-Marxists was simple enough: to show that the two theorists really did not contradict one another, that "really" they could be reconciled. The basis for reconciliation was that both viewed man as determined by outside forces: both hold that man fundamentally owes his identity to others.
Freud had asserted that man "learns" his rationality—his method of dealing with reality—from his society, that as he grows he develops an "ego" capable of modifying his inherited creative and destructive instincts (pleasure and death) so that they can be used to sustain him in civilization. The ego places his instincts in the service of what Freud called the "Reality Principle," the conditions required for survival—more specifically, for work. Work necessitated that he repress the instinct for pleasure (the sexual or creative instinct) so that the energy it provides can be diverted to productive effort (which, evidently, Freud considered neither creative nor pleasurable). But Marx had claimed that productive effort could be pleasurable in a communist society. The solution of the Neo-Marxists was to suggest that in a communist society the "Reality Principle" which now requires the suppression of pleasure would be replaced by a "Reality Principle" which did not. Under communism, especially at the current stage of industrial development, they explained, work would either be made pleasurable or would be eliminated by technology. And when, finally, men were free from "toil," they would also be free from the internal and external conflicts it requires.
For today's New Leftists, it is enough that Freud has been reinterpreted to allow the possibility of utopia. Not all of them, of course, are Freudians, though many of them find it an attractive alternative to pseudo scientific behaviorism. Freudianism, at least, leaves man something of his own, even if what it leaves him is a bundle of irrational instincts. And the view that human nature is basically irrational is not unwelcome to those who do not feel like exerting their intellect. Freud's theory of human nature, as interpreted by the Neo-Marxists, makes a positive virtue of flaunted mindlessness. Any irrational act becomes an attack upon the repression of pleasure induced by the mind, which takes its character from the "established Reality Principle." Where reason is the obstacle to pleasure, the more irrationality the better.
Specifically, the writers from whom most New Leftists learn their Neo-Marxist- Freudianism, Eric Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, treat reason (called "bourgeois reason") as the principal obstacle to human happiness, It is reason, Fromm declares, which is responsible for man's alienation, it is reason which makes him feel isolated and alone, "the freak of the universe."9 It is reason, proclaims Marcuse, which creates a reality opposed to pleasure, to freedom from repression and to "uninhibited desire and gratification," it is reason which makes man "an 'individual' set off against other individuals."11
In place of the villainous reason, Marcuse insists, we must substitute—"phantasy " ("Phantasy," or imagination, "like the id to which it remains committed…preserves the 'memory' of the subhistorical past when the life of the individual was the life of the genus, the image of the immediate unity between the universal and the particular under the rule of the pleasure principle," Marcus explains.) Love and phantasy represent those aspects of human nature which unite man with other men, thereby solving the problems of alienation and repression. Predictably, love and phantasy can only be fully exercised under socialism, in which the individual becomes a part of the social One.
Most New Leftists describe themselves neither as "Neo-Freudians" nor as "Neo-Marxists" but as "existential humanists." Existentialism, particularly the existentialism of Sartre and Camus, has been in vogue among college bred intellectuals for a number of years, became publically popular with the "beats" of the fifties, and now heavily influences the New Leftists who followed them in the sixties.
For some of its advocates and adherents, existentialism is a revolt against the scholasticism of modern positivistic philosophy. It is not a fundamental revolt. The existentialists learned from the positivists that reason is neither a tool of cognition nor a guide to action, that the human mind can discover no "absolute truth" about the world or man's place in it. But while the positivists proceed "reasonably" to investigate what remains to be studied (namely, the ways in which men talk about the world they cannot know, the existentialists attempt to save philosophy by abandoning reason altogether. In its place, they substitute a "new" means of knowledge their feelings. If the world is incomprehensible, they say, if thinking is futile and values are the product of arbitrary emotional attachments, then feelings are the only things that matter, commitment to those feelings the only assurance of value and meaning in life, and acting on those feelings the only way to achieve moral stature. Existentialism, says Sartre, "defines man by his action" and "proposes an ethic of action and self commitment." Commitment to what? "We cannot decide a priori what it is that should be done."11 Excepting its positivistic premises, it is a perfectly reasonable argument. The positivist cuts off man's head, the existentialist elevates the twitching, writhing body on a moral pedestal.
According to Sartre, existentialism is humanistic because it teaches that man is free, free to create his own morality and his own character. It does not hold, however, that man is an end in himself "it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself, by "pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist." Beyond the individual, Sartre says, are only other individuals. One can only conclude that the "free moral choice" must be between alternatives provided by the altruist ethic. Self-sacrifice to those others—in the name of "human solidarity" against an inhuman universe—is offered as the means by which man "is able to exist." The freedom offered by Sartre is the freedom to choose the particular form of one's self-immolation.
It is not difficult to account for existentialism's success among young people in general and the New Left in particular The existentialists claim to fill the philosophical vacuum left by positivism; they claim to deal with the serious issues which contemporary "scientific" philosophers refuse to discuss the nature of reality, man's position in the universe, the nature of values. They claim to answer the positivist charge that ethics is a matter of subjective preference by offering their objective morality (which is actually no more than collective subjectivism). The moral ideal they propose—self-sacrifice for the good of mankind—is the same ideal proposed by most of mankind's philosophers and taught by most of mankind's parents, including today's parents. And the existentialists' concern with alienation, their negative estimate of reason, and their prescription of "human solidarity" as the solution to the problem of existence, are consistent with Neo-Marxist and Neo-Freudian positions.
How little the existentialists actually have to say is concealed by their method of saying it. Employing the most powerful and persuasive medium of communication ever discovered, the work of art, they have impressed young people much more profoundly than the comparatively uninteresting writings of Marx and Freud.
Besides Sartre, the existentialist to whom the New Left turns most often is Albert Camus. A better artist than Sartre (and differing considerably witj the specific positions he advances), Camus conveys his vision of "the human condition"—the alienation of man in a universe over which he has no control largely through literary myth. His primary symbol for "the human condition" is the myth of Sisyphus, the tale of the rebel condemned by the gods to ceaselessly struggle to roll a stone to the top of a mountain, from which it always returned lo the bottom. Sisyphus seems to represent the supremely tragic hero.
"His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth."12
Yet Camus ends his version of the myth in affirmation:
"The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
It this seems an absurd conclusion, Camus agrees. "Absurdity" is his estimate of man's position in the universe, his metaphysical absolute. The preponderance of those who criticize Camus estimate, in the name nt reason, also proclaim, in the name of reason, that neither heroism nor happiness is possible on earth. One cannot blame young people for preferring Camus' version of hopelessness, in which one can at least feel heroic and happy.
It is nonetheless obvious that Camus' alternative is mindless, pointless action. Reduced from-metaphysical and mythical to individual and social terms, that action takes the form of political rebellion, justified not by the social success it hopes to achieve but by a mystical vision of self sacrifice:
"It is not rebellion itself that is noble, but its aims, even though its achievements are at times ignoble."
"When he rebels, a man identifies himself with all other men and so surpasses himself . .
"Its merit lies in making no calculations, distributing everything it possesses to life and to living men…Rebellion proves in this way that it is the very movement of life … Its purest outburst, on each occasion, gives birth to existence. Thus it is love and fecundity or it is nothing at all."13
In the modern world, Camus declares, man is either "victim or executioner," and the rebel is he who sacrifices himself to the executioner for the benefit of all victims. Since the rebel's success depends upon his own assumption of the role of executioner, he is an "absurd" position. The only solution Camus offers to this is that one remain a rebellious victim, or, if one must kill, to be sure that he himself is killed in the process.
The value which existentialism holds for the New Left is not a code of values or a prescription for action: it is the vision of a universe in which anything goes. If it were true that one must be either victim or executioner (which it isn't)—if it were true that one must live at one end or the other of Mao's political gun (which one doesn't)—then no rational code of values would be possible. If one feels like mindless activism, existentialism tells him that no exertion of intellectual effort could make a difference; if he feels like purposeless destruction, existentialism tells him that the universe itself is purposeless and destructive, and that he is a victim of fate. He is not really a self-pitying child stamping his foot at reality in a futile temper tamtrum—he is Sisyphus, or the Rebel, assaulting "the human condition" in a noble act of self-immolation. Such is the power of artistic expression.
Neither Marx, nor Freud, nor the existentialists, nor any of the other ideological mentors of the New Left, would have the esteem they enjoy today were it not for the nineteenth century philosopher Hegel. It is to him that the "Movement" owes its greatest philosophical debt. Hegel taught that facts are created by men's minds; that thinking is not the process of understanding reality (since "reality," as Kant had shown, is only "appearance"), but of making it up. The universe, he announced, is essentially contradictory, so logic—old fashioned" Aristotelian logic—should be abandoned when one attempts to understand it. Instead, one should employ "dialectical thinking," with which he can discover that what common sense perceived as true is inevitably false: that freedom is really slavery, and what seems like slavery, true freedom, that justice is really injustice, and what one ordinarily perceives as injustice, truly just, that individual people really do not exist, as much as you may think so, and what truly exists is the Group, the Mass, the Whole.
When a New Left activist declares that he knows a higher truth than you can grasp, because he understands dialectic; when he explains that he is going to have to force you to be free, because only he understands real freedom, when he proclaims that justice means seizing property from those who have earned it, and giving to those who have not; when he informs you that you should not mind sacrificing your life to Humanity, because without Humanity, which alone really exists, you could not live at all; and when he finally concludes that you are too stupid or too evil to understand his Truth, and reaches for a gun to make you free, and just, and good—it was Hegel who placed the gun in his hand.
The New Leftist is not the sole descendant of Hegel. Hitler's Germany was constructed by theorists who knew their Hegel well. This is disputed, of course, by Marxist theoreticians such as Herbert Marcuse, who wrote an entire book (Reason and Revolution, 1941) to absolve Hegel from any responsibility for fascism. What makes this necessary is that Marx, too. learned from Hegel, both his philosophical premises and the model for his own "historical dialectic."
It would be absurd to suggest that Hegel is actually widely read by New Leftists, his ideas reach them in popularized forms. Few, I suspect, have even read Marcuse's explanation and defense, which is almost as unreadable as Hegel himself. Yet this book is an excellent demonstration of the legacy the old philosopher bequeathed to the "Movement": it was Hegel, Marcuse states proudly, who taught "us" how to think.
No single living intellectual has done more for the New Left than has Herbert Marcuse himself. He interpreted and defended Hegel (Reason and Revolution, 1941), reconciled and integrated Marx and Freud (Eros and Civilization, 1955); saved Marx from the failures of his predictions, by reinterpreting the prophet for the modern world and attacking communist states which "misrepresented" him (One Dimensional Man, 1964; Soviet Marxism, 1958); translated the existentialist world view into a theory for concrete political action (An Essay on Liberation, 1969). Marcuse provides a philosophical theory and justification for the practice of socialist revolution here, and now.
While most New Leftists do not read his earlier, more "philosophical" works, most are familiar with his recent efforts: One-Dimensional Man, and essay called "Repressive Tolerance," and An Essay on Liberation. The theory expounded in these is simple enough, and is the culmination ot Marcuse's previous studies. Contemporary civilization, he asserts, is "non-revolutionary" in the classical Marxist sense because the working class has been "co-opted" by the system; the development of modern technology allows "the System" to create false needs and satisfy them, thereby deluding the average man into believing he is happy. However, modern technology also provides, for the first time in history, the possibility of utopia: of a society in which men are free from the necessity of work, a society in which machines solve the problem of production and socialism the "problem" of distribution. Only in this kind ot society would men be truly tree—free, that is, from the struggle for existence. Such a society, ot course, can only be achieved by revolution; and the working class is non-revolutionary. Consequently, the historical agents of revolution have changed: today, they are "oppressed minorities," here and abroad, exploited by the "capitalist system," and intellectuals who can "develop the revolutionary consciousness" in the oppressed minorities. Intellectuals, primarily the young intelligentsia (i.e., the New Left) must create the revolution and shape the society to come. Because only they know the truth, they must strive to recreate human nature by restructuring society. The indispensable means of achieving this goal are the establishment of censorship, and the use of violence.
His argument for the use of force, or violence, is the classical revolutionary argument, though with a particularly crude twist.
"In terms of historical function, there is a difference between revolutionary and reactionary violence, between violence practiced by the oppressed and by the oppressors. In terms of ethics, both forms of violence are inhuman and evil—but since when is history made in accordance with ethical standards?"14
His argument for censorship, or "intolerance," is based on his belief that "the people" would not voluntarily embrace his brave new world, and justified by Hegelian doubletalk. withdrawing freedom from those with whom he disagrees, he declares, would actually mean restoring "real freedom":
"Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left. As to the scope of this tolerance and intolerance:…it would extend to the stage of action as well as of discussion and propaganda, of deed as well as of word." (ellipsis his)
Advocating censorship of ideas and teachings which he does not approve, Marcuse explains, is justified by the fact that ideas and teachings he does approve cannot win acceptance in minds "indoctrinated" by the System.
It is instructive lo compare Marcuse's early books, which are laborious attempts to seem intellectual, with his most recent efforts, especially An Essay on Liberation. Here, he sounds like the most ardent SDS'er, fulminating against the Obscene System, and his sophistication has given way to the most open pandering to his young followers' tastes. Here he advocates the "cultural revolution" of "mind expanding" drugs and four-letter vocabulary, which supposedly recreates human nature in its nonrepressed, natural state, practices such as these he considers the constituents of an "aesthetic morality." The achievement of utopia, he writes,
"presupposes a type of man with a different sensitivity as well as consciousness: men who would speak a different language, have different gestures, follow different impulses; men who have developed an instinctual barrier against cruelty, brutality, ugliness. Such an instinctual transformation is conceivable as a factor of social change only if it enters the social division of labor, the production relations themselves."15
What this "instinctual transformation" would accomplish is the elimination of the necessity for intellectual effort, in the new society, men's "sensibility would register, as biological reactions, the difference tween the ugly and the beautiful, between calm and noise, tenderness and brutality, intelligence and stupidity, joy and fun, and it would correlate this distinction with that between freedom and servitude." (emphasis mine)
If Marcuse's philosophy is the product of the twentieth century, then mankind is right back where he started with Plato, and the philosopher king.
I the fourth century B.C. Plato wrote in his Republic:
"Unless either philosophers become kings in their countries or those who are now called kings and rulers come to be sufficiently inspired with a genuine desire for wisdom, unless, that is to say, political power and philosophy meet together, while the many natures who now go over their several ways in the one or the other direction are forcibly debarred from doing so, there can be no rest from troubles, my dear Glaucon, for states, not yet, as I believe, for all mankind, nor can this common wealth which we have imagined ever till then see the light of day and grow to its full stature."
"He will take society and human characters as his canvas, and begin by scraping it clean. That is no easy matter, but, as you know, unlike other reformers, he will not consent to take in hand either an individual or a state or to draft laws, until he is given a clean surface to work on or has cleansed it himself."
In the twentieth century A.D., one of the his students wrote in an ingenious essay:
"Philosophers act in order to contemplate; political actors contemplate in order to act. Philosophers leave the cessation of their contemplation to death; men of action construct their own ending to contemplation. There lies the beginning of their art.
"We want to be artists,"
"Artists need power.
"The political artist's power is derived from other men; his object is other men. The means and the end of his art are identical."
"Brother artists, we approach the beginning of the end of our contemplation."
"Our object is by definition other men. Our art is collective in its means and its end. In our empire, men will of necessity be partially enslaved. Such is the necessity for men in large spaces."16
Such is not the necessity for men on earth. But the New Leftist's view of philosophy, of politics, of action, of intellect, of man, does not allow him an alternative.
When Raphael was called to Rome to decorate the Pope's library, his future mentor, Michelangelo, was laboring high on a scaffolding to paint the Sistine Ceiling. His earlier teacher, Leonardo da Vinci, was in Milan working, no doubt, on still another of his incredible projects to make use of the universe.
We look to the Renaissance as they looked to Greece: as a culture which worshipped man's intellectual potential, and left to the future inspiring models of human achievement, and magnificent symbols of man's highest ideals.
Men's ideal can be realized by men's actions, but only when both are the product of men's minds.
Because few men understand this today—and these few do not include most who call themselves our intellectuals—our artists do not paint pictures of philosophers, or of academies, or—of anything at all. And until men understand it, the only version we will have of the university is the ugly photograph of mindless scholars in barricaded buildings which appears in the morning newspaper.
"We are fearful that if we do not establish a steady course," wrote one New Leftist several years ago, explaining their distrust of intellect, "it may take us somewhere we do not want to go." One can only hope that some of them—and those who taught them that distrust—are beginning to see where, in aimless wandering, they have arrived.
Cheri Kent Litzenberger is a graduate student and teaching assistant working toward a Ph.D. in literature at the University of California, San Diego. During the last year, she has been doing research on the New Left for an educational institute in San Diego, and has lectured widely on the subject of campus unrest. Her article, "The Uses of a 'Critical University,'" appeared in the March, 1969 issue of REASON.
1. Mr. Harrington's essay appeared in The New Republic, CLIV, No. 8 (Feb. 19, 1900) and has been reprinted in Thoughts of the Young Radicals, a New Republic book, published in 1966. It should he noted that his conception of "mysticism" differs from mine.
2, From "For the New Intellectual," in her book of the same name (published by The New American Library, 1903), p. 16.
3. Dale L. Johnson, "On the Ideology of the Campus Revolution," in The New Radicals: A Report with Documents by Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau (Vintage Books, I960); p 99.
4. From "Interviews with SDS Staffers," in Jacobs and Landau, The New Radicals, pp. 175, 178-9.
5. See Staughton Lynd, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism. It is true that earlier American "radicals" have influenced the New Left; Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" is especially important.
6. C. Wright Mills, "The Problem of Industrial Development," in Power, Politics and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills, ed. Irving Louis Horowitz (Oxford University Press, 1967), p 155.
7. Many within the "Movement" have, since its inception, noted the strong "anti-intellectual element" in the New Left some with admiration, some with alarm. In his sympathetic study published in 1966, A Prophetic Minority (The New American Library), Jack Newfield wrote of "an appalling anti-intellectualism among the newer SDS members. Not only do they read few novels and almost no scientific or philosophical literature, they have read little within the radical tradition." The problem is manifestly more extensive, and appalling, in 1969.
8. Jerry Rubin, "October 15-10 and the VDC (Vietnam Day Committee), VDC News (Oct. 11, 1965), p. 1.
9. See esp Fromm's Man for Himself, The Art of Loving, Escape from Freedom. The quotation appears in the first of these.
10. Quotations of Marcuse in this paragraph are from his 1955 book, Eros and Civilization (Vintage Books ed., pp 177 143).
11. Jean Paul Sartre, "Existentialism is a Humanism," in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed Walter Kaufman (The World Publishing Company, 1956), pp 787-311.
12. Albert Camus, "The Myth of Sisyphus In Existentialism from…ed. Kaufman, pp. 312-315. If this seems a view of life too hopeless to be embraced willingly by a young person, reread Carl Oglesby's description of the radical.
13. Albert Camus, The Rebel, (Vintage Books, 1956), pp. 101, 17, 304.
14. Herbert Marcuse, "Repressive Tolerance," in A Critique of Pure Tolerance, by Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, Jr., and Herbert Marcuse (Beacon Press, 1969), p. 103. The following quotation appears on page 109.
15. Herbert Marcuse, An Essay of Liberation (Beacon Press, 1969), p. 21. The following quotation appears on page 91. It is to the credit of some New Leftists that they have rejected Marcuse's intellectual elitism.
16. Christopher N. Reinier, "Politics as Art: the Civic Vision," reprinted in The New Student Left; originally published ns "Machiavellian versus Liberal Tactics," National Conference on Campus Political Parties, Oberlin, 1962.